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America has won more Nobel Prizes in medicine than any other nation: it’s easy when you have the money, the technology, and people from every other nation
October/november 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 6
Thirteen years later, after he and his group had determined the complex structure of the largest molecule analyzed to that date, he was astonished to find that his citation for the Nobel Prize referred precisely to the original single page: there was now a “firm foundation for truly rational research, something that was previously largely lacking in immunology.”
Laureates find the prize disrupts their lives: “The year I won,” said one, “was horrible.”
It is generally held that the institute has been rather conservative in its selections. One historian complained that an examination of the prizewinning discoveries would yield only “hard little pellets of empirical knowledge … shaken free of any conceptual matrix in which they are unaccountably embedded.” Had the prize existed in his day, Darwin would not have won it: the theory of evolution did not directly produce any facts. Einstein won “for his services of Theoritical Physics,” and specifically “for his discovery of the law of photoelectric effect.” Nobel’s will stipulates that the prizes should go to “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred a great benefit on mankind,” a phrase that looks toward a visible therapeutic result. In 1927, for instance, the Austrian Julius Wagner-Jauregg won the prize for producing a temporary abatement of the symptoms of advanced neurosyphilis by inoculating patients with malaria.
Although the conservative bent of the prize committee has been loosening up, the problem is still inherent in the nature of things. A greatly simplified scenario would run like this: X publishes a radical notion; ten years later A, B, C through Z, stimulated in large part by X’s idea, discover the facts that prove X was right. Who gets the prize? The bestowal of joint awards is a partial solution, but the institute has set a limit of three members from any one scientific group.
In her study Zuckerman discovered one experience common to most laureates: the prize had a disruptive effect on their lives and work. “The year I won the prize was horrible. Well, it was wonderful, but I didn’t do any work whatsoever,” said one winner. We are all accustomed now to the bombardment of the media, but it was eighty-one years ago that Marie Curie, after her first Nobel, wrote to her brother: “We are inundated with letters and with visits from photographers and journalists. One would like to dig into the ground somewhere and find a little peace. …”
Most of the money for research in America comes through the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. The NIH has both an internal and an external body; it carries on its own work and funds research across the country. A peer-review system determines which projects deserve support; qualified scientists are invited to come to the NIH and review the proposals for which funding is asked. The system has worked well but is steadily subject to the intensely competitive nature of all this as well as special pleading, logrolling, and ordinary human frailty.
There is a great deal of research done in the private sector—the drug companies are an example—but this has been goal-oriented and less likely to produce discoveries of Nobel proportions. Private companies, moreover, are careful to restrict publication, for obvious competitive reasons.
America is, for the moment, in the lead in science if the Nobel Prize is allowed to be a measure. In an age obsessed with technology, the bigger and richer a country is, the more people will be doing research. The Russians are a little paranoid about their science; they are wary about publication, and the free flow of information, which is essential to the cumulative effort science has now become, is stunted. America is eclectic in style; we have a great variety of people doing a great variety of things on their own initiative, not at the direction of the state. It is in the American tradition to be hospitable to the eccentric loner working for the love of knowledge only, not worried about specific commercial application.
“The desire for money is leading a lot of the brightest kids into medicine,” one chemist told me. “But not to worry—quite a few of them will get bored and go back into research.”